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100 things to do in 1000 days; #7: Sustaining Memories program at Ryerson University.

It took six months, but my part in the Sustaining Memories program, a joint project coordinated by Ryerson and the Azrieli Foundation where I used to work, is finally complete.

(The program pairs volunteers with Holocaust survivors who want to share their story in the form of a memoir, but, for whatever reason, require some help to actually get the story on paper. It involved several initiation/information sessions, interviews, hours of transcription and organisation, data gathering, chronological ordering, and finally, editing the mess into a readable story representing the life of the survivor as told by him or her.)

The experience was a wild array of adjectives and emotions. Meeting, interviewing, and getting to know my survivor was deeply moving and educational, but also disturbing and overwhelming. Where to start? How to do her story justice? How to react as she tells me about these dreadful experiences? How much and when do I probe? These problems were compounded by a slight language barrier (English is her fifth or sixth language) and the usual difficulties that come with age (hearing loss, sickness, memory lapses).

Writing the manuscript was another monumental task – I knew transcription was a long and monotonous process from my time in J-school, but I had never had to deal with such huge quantities of tape. I had over 11 hours of material from interviews and video documents, some of it repetitive, some of it contradictory, all of it important. There was also a huge amount of existing literature and data both online and in libraries in which to read, sort through, and find relevant information. And worst of all were the three competing authorial visions – left to my own devices, I would have written the memoir one way; my survivor also had a fairly clear picture in her mind of what she wanted; and the Sustaining Memories program itself had a clear and rigid set of rules and guidelines. Shaping the story into something that satisfied all three of us might have been the most difficult part of the whole endeavour…if it wasn’t for everything else.

It was stressful, time-consuming, and exhausting, but I also feel that it is one thing that is important and good that I helped bring into the world. I’ve never in my life felt like I was doing something more worthwhile. In some ways, it feels weird to write so much about my experience helping with the memoir, almost like I’m trying to appropriate her experiences. I hope it goes without saying, but I am under no illusions about how lucky I am, how minor these “difficulties” were in the larger scheme of things, and how much of a privilege it was to be involved.

Today, I received a package in the mail containing a bound copy of the manuscript, a certificate and letter of appreciation, and finally, a sense of closure, and with that, I count this item as complete.

IMG_0648 copy

Name hidden to protect privacy of the survivor until she is ready to release it and/or the manuscript is published in an anthology.

(There are currently talks about putting all the memoirs from this year and last year into an anthology, and having it published. So we’ll see where that goes…)



Survival Kit – Review – (-)


I read a LOT of Holocaust lit as a kid (Jasper, Lisa, Daniel’s Story, Endless Steppe, Number the Stars, Diary of Anne Frank, Devil’s Arithmetic, and more). I know I watched Schindler’s List in middle school, but I don’t remember if seeing that movie was what led me to the books, or whether the timing was coincidental. At any rate, after my young adult binge, I…never really touched the topic since. It can be so exhausting to mentally put yourself in that place (thank god, of course, that I have the luxury of taking the break).

But last year, I began working at the Azrieli Foundation, which publishes the memoirs of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Canada. At the time, they had published 20 English language stories, although I believe that number is now 21. I was given the entire library to read, and it took me about a month to work myself up to the challenge.

What finally pushed me to start reading the books were the videos. The Foundation has also begun releasing short movies of survivors who have published memoirs with them. The movies feature a mix of book excerpts, interviews with the authors, and animation. I watched these videos during an afternoon of booth-manning, and not only did I finally feel ready to read the books, I also felt like I needed to. The videos were incredibly effective because once you hear them speak, and see them communicate, you (or at least I) feel the need to know them better.

Zuzana Sermer is a very thoughtful and articulate woman, and her memoir is probably the most novelistic of the ones I’ve read. One simile that really stuck with me was her comparison between Communism and zoos, and war, somewhat, and jungles. “Inhabitants of a zoo may be safe,” she writes, “but they are helpless captives without the richness that makes life worth living.”

I’ve reviewed 4 of these memoirs already. It’s difficult to find new things to say after reading and reviewing so many of a similar type of book, so I’m going to end with the following, which comes from my previous review and states my feelings as clearly as I can phrase them:

These people come from all over the world and have experienced anything from convents to concentration camps.  I don’t feel comfortable rating these books – they’re personal and historical documents, not intentional works of literature, so I’m temporarily shelving my star system for now. However, I did want to review them, because I think they deserve to be read, thought about, and remembered.

Each memoir is unique and fascinating, and each has a worthy and important story to tell. On the one hand, this is so obvious as to become trite (everyone has a story to tell! everyone is important!), but on the other hand, it is an important reminder that we can never know the full story of any situation, and there are as many sides to the same story as there are people to tell it.

Cannonball Read: 46/52

(Cannonball Read V: 7/36)

How To Be a Woman– Review – ***1/2

howtobewomanAaand we’re back to memoirs.

[Just a warning – this review is definitely going to suck more than usual because I’m in a hurry; I recently realised I’ve posted every day so far this month, and now I would like to continue the trend. Thank goodness the month I chose to do this during is February.]

Ok, so the book. I bought this one (yay gift cards!) because I read an excerpt in one of mom’s magazine’s which basically stated, in funnier terms, my exact views on feminism, which is, essentially, the following:

All right-thinking human beings should be as comfortable labeling themselves “feminists” as they might be stating that they are pro good things and anti bad things. Because, you see, women and men are equal and should be treated as such, and all people are different from one another in some way, and these people can always find another group of people who share a bit of the same differences. So whether you divide them into men and women, introverts and extroverts, Community fans and non-Community fans, all people have worth, and should be treated as such.

In short, to be a “feminist” is to believe that women and men are equal. It is not the belief that men are bad, or that women are better (although I am pretty sure Community fans > non-Community fans). And that excerpt pretty much restated that. But, as I said, funnier. So, in other words, I liked what Moran had to say, and went out and bought the book. You know: duh.

But as I flipped through it at home, I couldn’t really find anything I liked. She was talking about being in love with some obvious douchebag and presenting on TV at the age of 18, and all I could think was, “I wasn’t that stupid at 18, and I’ve never been on TV.” Because…logic.

I put the book aside. I mentioned in my review of Bossypants that How To Be a Woman was next up on the line of things to read, and as you might have noticed (or not – I am reviewing them mere days apart after all, because…time management), I didn’t get around to actually reading it until months later. You know, after I put it on my Shelf in order to force myself to read it, given that I had spent the money, and it was in my house.

SO I started actually reading it and found the first few chapters hilarious. Like, I was seriously rolling on the [bed] laughing at each of the first three chapters, scaring the hell out of the dog, and being totally been converted to use of the word “cunt.” Her tirade on the porn industry is hilarious and true.  I also enjoyed the chapters on abortion and aging. And Nataly, if you’re reading this, I think you’ll really like the section on weddings.

I’ve read a lot of reviews that criticized Moran’s condemnation of the word “fat” while simultaneously calling people “retards” and making outlandish comparisons between that darned patriarchy and, for example, starving orphans, and I’m not sure this is entirely fair. For one thing, I didn’t read the “fat” chapter as an order to stop using the word, but more of a caution raising the awareness of what it can do to people. And for another, having scanned some reviews on Goodreads, it seems that the version I’m reading has been edited for the States, and I may be missing some of the more offensive phrasing. But mainly, she sticks to my preferred method of being obnoxious, which is to do it to all people equally, thus diluting its affect.

However, even when I disagreed with Moran’s points or conclusions, the tone of the book is friendly and conversational. I think part of what irritates people is the fact that her manner tends to suggest that her thoughts and opinions are the be-all and end-all, but I talk like that too, and that doesn’t mean I think that my word is the final word – it’s just a manner of speaking. We think it makes us sound funnier. So I’m less inclined to get my back up about the things I disagree with.

Of which there were plenty. Here are some notes I  made while reading:

“Disagree vehemently about women doing nothing for 100,000 years, but if you can get past that, she has some interesting things to say.”
“…That is not how the sorting hat works.”
“You don’t know me, stop telling me to do things.”
“Wait, you don’t like Top Gear? Your arguments are dangerously close to becoming invalid.”

Really, How To Be a Woman succeeded far more as a funny memoir in the vein of Jenny Lawson‘s, and less as a feminist screed, but Moran has a lot of interesting things to say, and is fearless in saying them. Whether you agree with her or not, she gives you a lot to think about, and new ways to think about it. If you’re looking for something to read the next time you’re snowed in, you could do a lot worse.

Cannonball Read: 42/52

(Cannonball Read V: 3/36)

Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection – Review – ****1/2

drop deadI’ve read all of A.J. Jacobs’ “stunt” memoirs. The Year of Living Biblically was my favourite by far, but his first, The Know-It-All is pretty damn good, too*. My Life As A Guinea Pig is fine – it’s a collection of articles written for Esquire following the Jacobs’ theme of experimenting on himself.

Drop Dead Healthy is just as good as Biblically. I spent the entire week I was reading this book reading quotes out loud to everyone around me, and making notes to improve my own healthiness.

It’s not your average self-help diet and exercise book, there isn’t one simple program that he hawks. It’s a fairly broad overview of all that healthy living has to offer, told with minimal judgement (a tone I call “respectful skepticism”) – a lot like Mary Roach. It’s not surprising that I’m always reading endorsement quotes from one on the jacket flaps of the other. There are the expected chapters on exercise and diet (encompassing everything from mindful eating, caveman living, and the veggie smoothie diet), but, as usual, Jacobs goes several steps further; you’ll also find chapters on ear health, back health, hand health, and more.

Some standout chapters are those on sleep (hilarious and, for this insomniac, so so relevant), and the aforementioned back (utterly, surprisingly, hilarious). This is that wonderful type of book that will cause you to accidentally learn things while entertaining you effortlessly. As a wannabee musician and athlete, the information on finger fitness was especially intriguing. The information on Retina A/tretinoin was very nice to know. I’m totally going to do HIIT for *my* mini-marathon. And he shared some truly terrifying information about sugar that the willfully ignorant like myself may have missed.

So four-and-a-half stars for you, A.J., and I’m looking forward to reading the next one.

*After reading them yet another quote from the book, my parents asked if I remembered anything from The Know-It-All, and I got to show off all proudly my remembrance of aposiopesis and apotropeic names, so there. Although I do remember purposefully trying to memorize those ones back when I was reading it, for the sole purpose of retaining *some* information, so…

Cannonball Read: 40/52

(Cannonball Read V: 1/36)

Favourite quotes:

“…As I learned in my year of living biblically, only by exploring the limits can you find the perfect middle ground.”

“If you could lock 10 thousand people in identical rooms for eighty years and feed half of them nothing but vegan food and feed the other half nothing but steak and eggs, and keep everything else the same, you could have some real data. But unless a Bond villain decides to pursue a doctorate in nutrition, that’s not going to happen.”

Reframing an airport security pat-down as a free massage? Hee.

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir) – Review – ****

This is a very, very bad bus book – for the first few chapters, there is almost no respite from the funny. It does, however, read more like a blog entry than a book. I love a good swear frenzy as much as the next person, but even I had had enough of “fuck” by book’s end.

You don’t have to be a fan of The Bloggess to enjoy her memoir – I only started reading the blog after I’d finished this book. And it’s an excellent read, full of lo-embarrassingly-l moments. It’s not perfect; her life is interesting and unique, but the emotions behind them aren’t exactly original – I don’t need to be constantly told how amazingly crazy her life is, I can judge it for myself. And, like most of these comedy memoirs, it starts out strong, but peters out a bit near the end. But it’s not really aiming to be the next great American novel, so why complain?

You may have noticed that I’ve been reading a lot of memoirs lately, including Holocaust memoirs, sad Irish memoirs, drug addiction memoirs, and being women in comedy memoirs, and I started thinking about why the authors feel all these different stories need to be told. For McCourt, his prose is the standout. Most Holocaust memoirs serve to inform, warn, and give dignity and respect to the victims. The women in comedy memoirs are either written forms of their standup acts, or sort of “you can do it, too” women-power screeds. The Bloggess may not be a professional comedian (and that’s debatable), but the purpose of this memoir is definitely entertainment. This paragraph doesn’t have a conclusion or anything, I just thought it was interesting to think about.

Also, how bizarre to read this almost immediately after Bossypants – an odd childhood with an eccentric father, both were stabbed in the face as kids, chapters on the hilarity and eww-yness of motherhood and jobs. I dunno, I was getting an odd sense of deja vu there.

Cannonball Read: 39/52

(Cannonball Read IV: 11/27)

Bossypants – Review – ****

Yes, yet another memoir! At least this one isn’t about the Holocaust.

I haven’t seen very much of 30 Rock (don’t worry, it’s on my long long list of TV shows to watch, and I know about the Rural Juror and Kenneth the Page, so relax), but I like what I’ve seen of Tina Fey, and I heard great things about the memoir, plus, you know, Chapter’s gift card. And anyway, her description of a character from the only episode of my aborted attempt to watch the 1st season that I remember – Jenna has a short-lived romance with an Austrian prince, pg 192 – makes me want to give the show another try, although it is possible I may find reading about the show funnier than actually watching it.

It was a very pleasurable read, not groundbreaking or anything. I breezed right through it. Fey is very good at scene-setting and description. I would also like to personally think her for “blorft” (pg 173), a very valuable and expressive new word.

My favourite portions of the book were her Windy City and Rules for Improv (which might as well be rules for life), and “A Childhood Dream Realized.” Essentially, I love reading about her improvising experiences. It’s so divorced from the world I know – the one filled with hermit hibernation and taking 3 years to complete a 1 year CBR because every review might not be a perfect masterpiece of criticism and entertainment, changing the literary landscape as we know it (in case it wasn’t obvious, I have totally let go of this goal) – this idea of seeing what pops out of our mouths without worrying about how it will come across. What an alien and foreign concept.

I loved her take on women’s comedy (“I don’t like Chinese food, but I don’t write articles trying to prove it doesn’t exist” – remember that you are not the arbiter of good taste), mothering (“me time”!), and anything that praised Amy Poehler. In fact, her chapter on juggling work and motherhood chapter was, literally, “refreshingly” honest, incredibly personal, and deeply relatable; I seriously, felt cleansed after reading it.

And, guess who else doesn’t have a driver’s license! HA!

[Note: When I finished Bossypants, I looked at the disaster table that currently holds Stuff I’m In The Middle Of, and saw Caitlin Moran’s book “How to be a Woman,” and thought, “I can’t read that yet, I’m not ready to be inspired into doing something that reading two memoirs about awesome women in a row might spur me to do.” It is now several months later, I have just finished “How to be a Woman,” and I am feeling merely semi-inspired. I wasn’t a TV presenter at 18, dammit!]

Cannonball Read: 38/52

(Cannonball Read IV: 10/27)

Reviews: Maus I – ****, Maus II – *****, and MetaMaus – ****

During my time working for the Azrieli Foundation, and partnering up with a Holocaust survivor to help write her memoirs, I have also, not surprisingly, been reading a lot of Holocaust literature. I previously reviewed some memoirs published by the organisation. Now I’d like to review a collection of works by Art Spiegelman, the first two of which are regarded as classics in both that genre, and the genre of graphic novels.

Maus 1Let’s start with the first volume. The story moves along briskly and is deceptively basic. It’s a simple black and white cartoon with minimal text. But a lot of stuff is packed into those words and those pictures, both explicit and inferred. I really liked that he tells the story in his father’s voice and accent – it makes you [the reader] feel like your own grandpa is telling it to you. I also liked that Spiegelman generally doesn’t put boxes around the drawings when they take place in his own [modern] times; only those that take place in the past are framed.

Maus I and II were published in the 70s and 80s – examples of Meta before it was cool (seeing as how now, nothing is allowed to be published or aired on TV without copious internal referencing). I don’t read a lot of graphic novels (mostly just this and Alan Moore), and I enjoyed the way the format, by publishing the story chapter by chapter, allowed him to use subsequent chapters to make reference the process of writing, and to events occurring in response to those previous chapters, such as showing the work-in-progress to his dad.

I found the parts with Vladek remembering his past and dealing with his present the most affecting – maybe because it’s a more personal and smaller sort of terror and destruction, maybe because marital strife, suicide, and depression are more relateable than the unimaginable horror of death camps, bunkers, and starvation, I don’t know. But I also always find it interesting to read the way children portray their parents in memoirs, especially if the relationship isn’t a traditionally happy and comfortable one (and Art and Vladek’s certainly wasn’t).

Maus 2

As good as Maus I was, Maus II was even better. When I worked in a textbook store, we sold thousands of copies of the first volume to high schoolers taking social studies or history or Jewish studies, but I can only remember selling one or two copies of the second volume, and I worked there for four summer rushes. It’s a pity. The second chapter’s musings on success, fear, and a visit to the shrink was incredibly affecting. “Strongest stuff yet. The work is maturing with him.” I wrote in my notes. I also found that this volume did a better job of mixing unexpected humour into the narrative during the depth of despair.

[Side note: Every Holocaust story I read brings up new and different horrifying atrocities. I wonder if it ever stops being affecting, if you just become eternally numb. How do people who study it for a living deal? I bet they could write the best horror/suspense, and I bet not a single one ever has.]


Art Spiegelman is an artist and author, but he is also a scholar, and his hugely in-depth MetaMaus is somehow a making-of documentary in book form, a history of cartoon and graphic novel media, a collection of extended essays (philosophically talking about art, comics, familial relationships, the act of creating/artist’s process, war, the holocaust, religion, Judaism, survival), and, as he puts it, a build-it-yourself Maus tool kit (it includes a remarkable CD, which has almost every primary source he used to write the books – transcripts, photos, early drafts, obscure history papers, a bibliography – I still haven’t gone through all of it, but eventually I just needed to count this book as read). There’s a lot of stuff packed into this 300 page book.

The book is dense, though, so if you’re a casual fan of Maus, I’m not sure I’d recommend it. On the other hand, it does have a lot to offer, even to people who have never read the book. For instance, it’s practically a crash course in the history of underground comics, which I knew next to nothing about (again, just Watchmen and V for Vendetta).

Boy did I have a lot to say about this one. Although most of it is just quotes I liked, so instead of a traditional review, I’m just going to bullet point a list of comments and things that interested me. Because I can.

  • Father is an extremely difficult, sympathetic man. No one would say the war was a good thing, but it brought out, as all events do, the good in some and the bad in others.
  • Even now, dad saw the cover: “what is it, a parody?” I’ve read Alan Moore and Gaiman, I know there are well-respected Batman comics/graphic novels, Walking Dead, etc, but did it all start with Maus?
  • Because it’s written clearly and matter-of-factly in his father’s voice, I did’t imagine how much work must have gone into putting the story together.
  • I like the concept of visual rhymes.
  • Being honest about the material (which fits in with memory and storytelling) – brings up a lot of stuff about memory (the act itself, its historical importance, and the ability of comics, family relations, second generation).
  • pg 34: Your own thesis, only it’s the author’s own interpretation – i.e., he says, “Perhaps the only honest way to present such material is to say: ‘here are all the documents I used, you go through them. And here’s a twelve-foot shelf of works to give these documents context, and here’s like thousands of hours of tape recording, and here’s a bunch of photographs to look at. Now, go make yourself a Maus!'”
  • pg 34-35: himself as a character; critics didn’t necessarily understand that he was commenting on himself as much as he was commenting on his father- even in Maus itself, he is obvious about it (Harvey Pekar was one such critic) – like when he listens back to a tape recording of himself and winces (this happens in Maus). I enjoyed his reaction to Pekar: “Pekar was like: ‘*Gasp!* I found Spiegelman out! He was being insensitive to his father!’ Well, yeah.” – pg 35
  • pg 77: rejection letters – Really fascinating, especially as a wannabee writer; think: this same thing later won a Pulitzer.
  • the response in different countries
  • pg 100: At a Holocaust conference in LA in 1988 during a ‘can there be art after the Holocaust’ panel: Harry Mulisch (Dutch novelist): “He explained the difference between his novel and journalism: in journalism, it makes a difference if a fire happened, in a novel it’s just how well one can describe a fire. Therefore, as a novelist, he felt he couldn’t deal with what happened in Auschwitz because it was too indescribable – that it’s best left to the […] historians of the world.” He says historians liked that description, but he, Art, took it as a challenge. “I felt we need both artists and historians. I tried to explain that one has to use the information and give shape to it in order to help people understand what happened – that historians, in fact, so that as much as any artist – but that history was far too important to leave solely to historians.”
  • pg 101: During a discussion with the Holocaust museum in Washington DC, he talked about doing a show about contemporary genocide and suggested calling it “Never Again and Again and Again”
  • pg 143: his style causes your eyes to move across the page; more elaborate styles really do make your eye stop and stare at each panel as its own separate things. An example is shown in the book of a version of a Maus page with much more intricate, detailed drawings. I found myself looking at each one like its own copper engraved plate. And the thought extends past what goes in each individual panel to how the panels interact with each other in a way that tells the story effectively and honestly, while also guiding your eye in a way that keeps you involved and easily readable. With enough variety so it doesn’t just looks like a grid. He looks at each page like a sentence and each panel as the words, or paragraph/sentence.
  • pg 185: difference between comics and cartoons, and metaphors getting in the way of belief.
  • pg 202: Understanding the limitations of oneself as an artist, but accepting that it doesn’t make you ‘less than’. It’s storytelling, and we get it out how we can.
  • pg 203-204: discussion of art in museums, “comics weren’t trying to be paintings and failing at it; it’s drawing with a different purpose”; response to High/Low show at MOMA, placing comics and paintings in the same room, therefore implicitly comparing them.
  • pg 224: “Trying to make sequences that are moving but not manipulative is a tricky business.”

Cannonball Read: 37/52

(Cannonball Read IV: 9/27)

Reviews: Azrieli Holocaust Memoirs

The organisation I currently work for accepts manuscripts from Holocaust survivors, and edits, publishes, and distributes the resultant memoirs through schools, book fairs, and other avenues. Although I don’t work the publication side of things (I’m in good old Communications, of course), but I’ve been working my way through the 20 authors they’ve published so far. These people come from all over the world and have experienced anything from convents to concentration camps.  I don’t feel comfortable rating these books – they’re personal and historical documents, not intentional works of literature, so I’m temporarily shelving my star system for now. However, I did want to review them, because I think they deserve to be read, thought about, and remembered.

Felix Opatowski’s Gatehouse to Hell was the first of the memoirs I read. It was a grim page-turner, difficult to put down, horrifying, yet told with a bit of clinical detachment.

Willie Sterner’s The Shadows Behind Me was direct, heart-breaking, and told in simple language that managed to reveal an astonishing depth of feeling. Sterner’s book was also interesting to me as someone who has been fascinated by Oskar Schindler since seeing the movie in middle school. Sterner worked in Schindler’s factory as a painter during the war, and he describes the man, and their relationship.

John Freund’s Springs End is written in the most writerly style of the memoirs I’ve read. Most survivors do not speak English as a first, or even second language, but Freund is comfortable with English, storytelling, and atmosphere. The others so far have been written in a more matter-of-fact, point-by-point, this-is-what-happened-to-me style. Freund is more metaphorical, even lyrical with his theme of the changing seasons, and he philosophically explores his emotions as a survivor.

“How did I survive when so many died? The easiest way to answer would be to say that God was with me, though I cannot accept this explanation because it raises more questions than it answers. […] More than forty million people died in camps, battlefields and bombed cities. Where was God? […] Rabbi Rudolph Ferda believed that we Jews were punished for leaving our religion and the moral teachings of the Torah. Perhaps there is some truth in this, but would a just God punish so severely and unmercifully? […] Even though I cannot believe that God selected me to live, I am grateful that I survived.” ~ pg 71-72

We read along as he grapples with these impossible questions, and describes his well thought-out, ambiguous, and ambivalent answers to them.

Tommy Dick’s Getting Out Alive was dry, terse, pointed, and, in my opinion, darkly amusing. He also slyly gave voice to a question that has always, frankly, annoyed and infuriated me:

“By the spring of 1944, the Germans were fighting for their survival, and yet they began to arrest […] Jews [in Hungary]. One wonders if they did not have strategically more important tasks.” ~ pg 6

Dick’s was also the first memoir I read that really touched on the nihilistically defiant mental view of “screw it, we’re gonna die anyway.” Most have discussed the emotions of fear, anger, and confusion, and the actions of smuggling and hiding. This is the first I’ve read (though not the first to experience, I’m sure) that mentions casual sex as a way to pass the horrible time pleasurably, for example.

Each memoir is unique and fascinating, and each has a worthy and important story to tell. On the one hand, this is so obvious as to become trite (everyone has a story to tell! everyone is important!), but on the other hand, it is an important reminder that we can never know the full story of any situation, and there are as many sides to the same story as there are people to tell it.

Cannonball Read III: 34/52

(Cannonball Read IV: 6/27)